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Redband Trout

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Subject: Redband Trout
Date: 06-Sep-09

Redband: Idaho's most widely distributed native trout

By Kevin Meyer - Idaho Department of Fish and Game

Though less glamorous, the redband trout, native to much of Idaho, is no less deserving of anglers' admiration than the state fish, the cutthroat trout, considered by many to be the crown jewel for fishing in the western U.S. All rainbow trout native to streams east of the Cascade Mountains in Oregon and Washington are called redband trout. In Idaho, that means most of the trout in rivers and streams below Shoshone Falls.

Archaeological evidence suggests that the first trout to arrive or evolve in Idaho were cutthroat trout. Redband trout did not invade Idaho until after Shoshone Falls had formed on the Snake River, somewhere between 15,000 and 60,000 years ago. Similar barriers existed in the Spokane and Pend Oreille river basins. Because redbands had no way of invading these upper watersheds, cutthroat trout remain the only native trout in eastern and much of northern Idaho.

Many anglers might be surprised to learn that redband trout and steelhead are the same species. When they swim to the ocean, we call them steelhead, and when they live in streams their whole life, we call them redband trout. Surprisingly, steelhead can produce offspring that never leave their natal stream, and redband trout can produce offspring that migrate to the ocean to become steelhead. Biologists don't really understand what affects the strategy an individual fish chooses.

Redband trout live in a variety of stream habitats in Idaho, from some of the warmest streams in the Owyhee desert to the smallest mountain streams in remote alpine settings of central and northern Idaho. Like most trout, they tend to be small, grow slowly, and reach sexual maturity at five to six inches in small streams, and they may live to be only three or four years old. In larger rivers with better growing conditions, they might reach 16 inches by age four, or live to be 10 years old or more. Biologists have long suspected that redband trout living in desert streams have special adaptations to withstand high water temperatures. They are known to live in temperatures up to 86 degrees - temperatures usually considered lethal for trout.

Recent studies show that redband trout from mountain streams have the same ability to live in warm streams as their desert cousins, though they rarely use those capabilities since mountain streams are usually much cooler.

Redband trout are revered by anglers for their fighting and jumping abilities once they are hooked. They are also one of the easiest trout to raise in a hatchery. Because of these characteristics, they have been stocked outside their native range more widely than any other species of trout.

But most sources of hatchery trout raised and released in Idaho are rainbow trout from waters along the Pacific Coast range. These coastal rainbows are genetically different from Idaho's native redband stocks.

Despite decades of hatchery fish stocking, however, hybridization between hatchery rainbow trout and native redband trout is not widespread. Idaho Fish and Game now stocks only sterile rainbow trout so that further hybridization doesn't occur. Fish and Game biologists have shown that sterile hatchery trout survive as well as other hatchery fish, so anglers never know the difference. Redband trout can be found in just about any stream in southern or central Idaho and in streams of the Kootenai basin in extreme northern Idaho. They love worms, lures and flies, thus providing a wide variety of tackle choices.

To many anglers catching native fish in their natal streams has a reward above and beyond how big the fish are or how many of them end up in the creel.

The redband is easily as important to Idaho's outdoor heritage as the cutthroat trout, and that should get any angler excited.

Kevin Meyer is a fisheries research biologist with the Southwest Region.

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